Obama taps Hagel with combative speech– following outreach to AIPAC

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Hagel and Obama in Amman 2008 Paul Richards AFP
Hagel and Obama in Amman 2008 Paul Richards AFP

Update: President Obama just nominated former Senator Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense. Obama’s speech was combative. It emphasized Hagel’s military service, his injuries in Vietnam, and said that Hagel was his choice because he could work with those on the ground, “the guy at the bottom, who’s doing the fighting and the dying.” Obama repeatedly struck an assertive tone as if daring neoconservative chicken hawks to criticize Hagel. Hagel said as little as was possible… Obama’s memorable lines:

Maybe most importantly, Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction.  He understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that’s something we only do when it’s absolutely necessary.  “My frame of reference,” he has said, is “geared towards the guy at the bottom who’s doing the fighting and the dying.”  With Chuck, our troops will always know, just like Sergeant Hagel was there for his own brother, Secretary Hagel will be there for you.

The media are all reporting that President Obama has chosen Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense. Update: From ABC:

Obama will nominate former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel to be the next Secretary of Defense at a formal White House announcement later today, administration officials said. 

The media are generally lukewarm on the pick; Martha Raddatz and George Stephanopoulos agree there’s no guarantee the nomination will be approved, many predict a battle from Republicans. The good news is that the Israel angle is getting a lot of play, even if the reporters aren’t being very straightforward about the lobby’s role. Though Slate’s Fred Kaplan is very straightforward: Criticism of Israel is the third rail in our foreign policy.

And notice thoughout the coverage that the White House and its friends are pushing back, saying that Hagel loves Israel. The White House preempted AIPAC’s potential opposition by lobbying it, according to Jeffrey Goldberg on twitter:

Sources tell me White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew called AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr last week to argue case for Chuck Hagel. White House lobbying of AIPAC may explain why group is not going great guns so far against Hagel nomination.

A quick roundup:

Chuck Todd at NBC says that Republicans don’t like Hagel because he flipped on the Iraq war, and that Democrats don’t like him because he’s another Republican in the Pentagon. Horse feathers; that’s not why ten Democratic Senators are against Hagel, per Todd. Though Todd does mention Israel: 

The nut of Hagel fight: There are two basic lines of attack against Hagel. One has to do with whether he’s a true ally of Israel. Detractors point to some votes Hagel made when it came to Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as some votes on Iran sanctions. But supporters of Hagel note he always voted in favor of full funding of Israel aid and did sign on to key pieces of legislation that did target Iran’s nuclear program and did target Hamas.

In fact, we’ve heard that as many as 10 DEMOCRATIC senators might be “no” votes on Hagel, or they at least start out as “no” on Hagel. So Hagel will have a lot of work to do

LA Times says that conservatives denounce the pick. But the piece puts the Israel angle high:

Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina predicted that Hagel would be “the most antagonistic secretary of Defense toward the state of Israel in our nation’s history” and called his pick by President Obama an “in-your-face nomination.” …

Hagel, although a Republican, is viewed with suspicion by many in his party for past comments he has made calling on Israel to negotiate with Palestinians and for his opposition to some sanctions aimed at Iran.

Imagine: he called for Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians! The Palestinians as the Taliban. The piece includes major pushback from Israel supporters:

[Aaron David] Miller, who had interviewed Hagel for a book he was writing on the Mideast peace negotiations, wrote recently that attempts to use [Hagel’s quoted] comment about the “Jewish lobby” to paint Hagel as anti-Semitic were “shameful and scurrilous.” He noted that in the same interview Hagel also stressed “shared values and the importance of Israeli security.”

Supporters say Hagel showed his support for Israel by voting repeatedly to provide it with military aid and by calling for a comprehensive peace deal with the Palestinians that should not include any compromise regarding Israel’s Jewish identity and that would leave Israel “free to live in peace and security.” They note that he also supported three major Iran sanctions bills:

You can see more of this effort in Steve Clemons’s piece yesterday, where he defends Hagel from an “anti-Israel bias” and writes that Hagel was a “gift from God” to the American USO operation in Israel some years ago.

On National Public Radio this morning, Tom Bowman and Steve Inskeep can’t mention the Israel angle till 1:47 in their report. Bowman notes that the White House is pushing back to say that Hagel is pro-Israel. “A friend of Israel,” per Dan Kurtzer. And Bowman says that Hagel would be the first Defense Secretary whose military experience is as “a grunt,” not an officer, and this would make him less likely to go to war. Gosh.

Cokie Roberts is cool on Hagel, likens him to former DefSec-nominee, the late Sen. John Tower, being rejected as an alcoholic and womanizer! Roberts is all inside-baseball–

He’s rubbed some of his fellow senators the wrong way… It can backfire if to know a senator is not to love him. And that apparently is the case with some senators and Chuck Hagel

Till she has to look at the Israel angle, and misleads her listeners:

You have to keep in mind, that when someone is accused of being anti-Israel, as some have said about Hagel, that that becomes an issue in the evangelical community, which is of course very pro-Israel and of course the base of the Republican Party.

I really don’t think Christian Zionists are pushing this effort– not the Republican Party of Dan Senor, the Republican Jewish Coalition and Sheldon Adelson. Are Senators really worried that a pro-Hagel vote will hurt them with evangelicals?

Speaking of Sheldon and his ilk, Roberts mentions a second, full-page anti-Hagel ad from Log Cabin Republicans in the Washington Post about Hagel’s anti-gay slurs. But she can’t mention what Glenn Greenwald says, What donor is behind these ads? Surely the Israel lobby.

New York Times calls Hagel a “lightning rod” and quotes an anonymous administration official saying the nomination will go through and “It  would be hard to explain a no vote just because he bucked his party on Iraq, a war most Americans think was a disaster.” Good point.
The Times saves the Israel angle for the second page, but speaks of a Jewish lobby:
For weeks, some Jewish groups sought to dissuade Mr. Obama from choosing Mr. Hagel, who once referred to advocates of Israel as “the Jewish lobby.” Having failed, opponents over the weekend shifted to trying to block Mr. Hagel’s confirmation.
Regional chapters of the American Jewish Committee, which has bipartisan bona fides, began circulating letters to their Democratic senators, urging them to oppose Mr. Hagel.

One such letter, obtained by The New York Times, said: “While AJC recognizes Senator Hagel’s record of service to our country and the people of Nebraska, his opinions on a range of core U.S. national security priorities run counter to what AJC advocates and what President Obama has articulated — notably, on the efficacy of Iran sanctions, on a credible military option against Iran, on branding Hezbollah as terrorist organization, and on the special nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Mr. Hagel and his supporters have dismissed criticism of his views on Israel, noting that he voted on several occasions to provide billions of dollars in military aid to the country.

Notice again the pushback that Hagel loves Israel. So much for sanctions against settlements… Later there’s this caution about whether Hagel would want to go to war against Iran, making the political red lines clear. You’ve got to be for war! The blind source kind of sounds like Dennis Ross, doesn’t it?  

 As secretary of defense, Mr. Hagel would not be directly involved in designing or enforcing those sanctions; that is the work of the Treasury and State Departments. But he would be in charge of one of the other major elements of pressure: the huge buildup of American naval might, antimissile capability and special operations in the Persian Gulf. That force is intended not only to keep the Strait of Hormuz open but also to make credible Mr. Obama’s threat to use military force to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

“So far, Obama’s big problem is that the threat to use force has not seemed credible,” a former official who has worked on Iran issues with Mr. Hagel and frequently advises the administration on Iran said last week. “The question is whether if Chuck is defense secretary, the Iranians would take seriously the thought that he is willing to use force if it comes to that.”  

Fred Kaplan at Slate is for Hagel. This is an excellent piece. Kaplan says Obama and Hagel were right about the disastrous Iraq war, and Hagel has the honesty to talk about the “bugaboo… the third rail” in foreign policy, Israel. Kaplan wisely dispenses with the anti-Semitism claim against Hagel on the “Jewish lobby” quote by pointing out, Hey, the lobby calls itself the representatives of Jews:

It’s also true that Hagel isn’t keen on going to war with Iran. Two things here: First, the same is true of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and most of the American people… On the issue of military force, Hagel is more dovish than many Republicans and perhaps some Democrats. He opposed the Iraq war, but so did Obama (then an Illinois state senator), and, as is clearer now than ever, they were right…

But the bugaboo issue—the third rail when it comes to foreign policy—is Israel. As a senator, Hagel once complained to a reporter that “the Jewish lobby” intimidates many lawmakers on Capitol Hill. And he once intoned that he was a senator from Nebraska, not a senator from Israel. These may have been impolitic remarks, but they weren’t false—either in strict substance or in spirit. No one could deny that AIPAC has an overpowering influence on many lawmakers.

Hagel’s sin, in the eyes of some, was to call it the “Jewish lobby” instead of the “Israel lobby.” If this is a sin, AIPAC and its allies have brought it on themselves. For decades, they have thundered that criticism of Israel is thinly disguised anti-Semitism. Yet they cry “anti-Semitism” again when someone inverts the equation (which is what the phrase in question amounts to: If anti-Israel equals anti-Jewish, then pro-Israel equals pro-Jewish). As for saying that he’s a senator from Nebraska, not Israel: Had he or any other senator said this about any other country (“I’m not a senator from France … England … Canada” or wherever), no one would have batted an eye. To accuse him of anti-Semitism on these grounds is to reveal a staggeringly deep paranoia—or a sensitivity far too acute to be allowed any role in American politics.

So this is the third rail in foreign policy? And it reflects paranoia on the part of empowered Jews? This is what I’ve always wanted: smart mainstream journalists taking on the lobby. I believe Kaplan’s wife Brooke Gladstone will at last address the question forthrightly on her influential NPR show, On the Media. She should explain why the White House felt a need to lobby AIPAC and did so using a chief of staff who the Jewish press brags is Orthodox Jewish. Notice that Chuck Todd at NBC teed up the same issue when he wrote that “the Jewish lobby” term “is offensive to both pro-Israel supporters and Jews who do not like to be lumped in with the AIPAC’s of the world.” Well those Jews who don’t want to be lumped with the AIPAC’s of the world have to speak up, like Fred Kaplan. 

Jeffrey Goldberg agrees with Jim Lobe. AIPAC is going to sit this one out rather than suit up and lose:

The administration is worried most about AIPAC — it does not generally pay attention to the editorials of The Weekly Standard — and its emissaries have been working overtime to ensure AIPAC’s quiescence. I could obviously be wrong, and information may come out in confirmation hearings that makes it impossible for AIPAC to sideline itself, but my guess at this moment is that the AIPAC will not mount a significant campaign on the Hill.

Robert Reich doesn’t dare talk about the Israel angle. From Grant Smith of IRMEP, in our comments section yesterday:

Today Robert Reich, on the George Stephanopoulos Sunday yak show, wondered why Obama would expend political capital on confirmation, but wouldn’t touch the Israel lobby angle that George laid out on the table. A few moments later, Reich launched into an in-depth analysis of the NRA’s “modus-operandi” to keep gun-control issues off the table.

As Phil previously noted, Reich’s approach to the Israel lobby is “affected ignorance.” This time in service to the anti-Hagel drive.

Smith linked to a post of last year in which I wrote, “Robert Reich pretends he’s stupid,” when Reich discussed Sheldon Adelson’s agenda without saying a word about Israel. This type of evasion is going to make people mad, and, tragically, make them mad at Jews– which is why I am grateful to Fred Kaplan and MJ Rosenberg for their forthrightness about the Jewish lobby issue. 

Some of that populist anger is evident at UPI.com, where Arnaud de Borchgrave speaks bluntly about the “Jewish lobby.” A reminder of the fact that the lobby overplayed its hand and got smacked on Iran:

The Hagel controversy is all about Israel and the far-right Likud party agenda — and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu‘s barely concealed hostility toward U.S. President Barack Obama and contempt for Hagel.

The AIPAC-orchestrated campaign via its neo-conservative yeomanry is now the hot favorite among odds-makers. But then there is the unknown among unknowns — and the unknown unknowns

It is still AIPAC vs. Obama and the odds-on favorite? AIPAC.

I’ll update this post as the day goes on.
Update: Sullivan says this is about accountability for the Iraq war disaster, before naming the lobby:

Unlike so many of the lemmings and partisans of Washington DC, Hagel actually called out the catastrophe of the Iraq War as it happened. The neocons cannot forgive him for exposing what they wrought on the nation and the world. For good measure, he has a Purple Heart and has served in combat. Not easy to say about most of the Iraq War armchair warriors and war criminals.

Which is to say, as Chuck Todd said this morning, this nomination is about accountability for the Iraq War. All those ducking responsibility for the calamity – Abrams, Kristol, Stephens – are determined that those of us honest enough to resist, having supported in the first place, be erased from history. Or smeared as anti-Semites. Or given that epithet which impresses them but baffles me: “outside the mainstream”. Rephrase that as – after initial support – being “outside the Iraq War mainstream” in DC – and you have a major reason to back him…

And that is the real opportunity of this nomination. At the hearings, we can see McCain’s vision versus Hagel’s, and see the difference between a man who refuses to adjust his global mindset after Iraq and a man who has had the strength and character to do so. So many Americans are likely to agree with Hagel over military restraint, diplomatic patience, and cutting defense bloat. The reason the Greater Israel lobby is in such a froth is that the weakness of their arguments could be publicly exposed – by a Republican. And there isn’t enough AIPAC money and intimidation to stop that happening.

Update: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor: Hagel Is The Wrong Man For The Job

“I am profoundly concerned and disappointed by President Obama’s nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense. Recent reporting has made clear that Senator Hagel’s views and inflammatory statements about Israel are well outside the mainstream and raise well-founded doubts that he can be trusted to manage the special relationship the United States shares with our greatest Middle East ally.

“Senator Hagel’s incendiary views of Israel are only the tip of the iceberg…”

Oh and this is funny. Two weeks back Barney Frank said Hagel would be “good” for the job. Then last week Barney Frank flipped against Hagel. Now he flips back. Boston Globe today– on MSNBC Steve Kornacki said this is Frank’s play to be named sitting Massachusetts senator in Kerry’s spot:

Former representative Barney Frank is dialing back his opposition to the pending nomination of former senator Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, saying he is willing to look past the Nebraska Republican’s comments about gays because it is more important that his views prevail on drawing down the war in Afghanistan and reducing wasteful defense spending.

“I was hoping the president wouldn’t nominate him,” Frank told the Globe today.

“As much as I regret what Hagel said, and resent what he said, the question now is going to be Afghanistan and scaling back the military,” Frank said. “In terms of the policy stuff, if he would be rejected , it would be a setback for those things.”

Thanks to Annie Robbins and Ilene Cohen.

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